If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It:
Tel Aviv’s Finest Leave It All – Cartilage, Platelets – On The Floor
As Yonatan Gat leans out his apartment window to grab a smoke, the urban bustle is clearly audible on the street below. However, these aren’t the sounds of his native Tel Aviv – while his bandmates have briefly returned to the homeland, Gat opted for a short-term Manhattan sublet. “Other than touring and recording, we haven’t lived in the same city for some time,” Gat explains between puffs. “I lead a very nomadic lifestyle – I don’t really know where I live. I haven’t had a lease in four years. Before we head back on the road I’m thinking of getting a storage space here.”
Putting down a deposit on a closet hardly qualifies as laying down roots, but it begins to make sense when you hit the road 200 nights a year – as guitarist Gat and his Monotonix brethren have done since signing on for their commando mission in late 2005. And the road is where Monotonix have built their reputation, obliterating band/audience divides and leaving behind tales of debauchery reminiscent of Who afterparties circa 1970. Early on, the guitar/drum/vocal trio decided to maximize interaction by setting up their gear on the floor rather than the stage, sharing alcohol and bodily fluids with their patrons. They’ve picked a perfect Atlanta venue in 529 for their December hijinks (attention Hawks: your turf is under attack).
Monotonix occasionally draws comparisons to Gogol Bordello, for all the wrong reasons. Both bands feature members with untamed manes, unfamiliar accents, and unhinged stage antics. However Monotonix traffics in primitive garage punk with a decidedly metal bent, channeling Mudhoney and the Stooges rather than a gypsy minstrel act – even if both bands occasionally find themselves held aloft atop a kick drum.
Monotonix’ members pride themselves in soldiering on through the various injuries (“we’ve had our heads bashed in before, shoulders broken”) that come from such mingling – after all, we’re talking about three Israeli Army veterans here. Nonetheless, Athens holds the distinction of being the first show Monotonix was ever forced to cancel, thanks to a West Palm Beach mishap this past January that befell vocalist Ami Shalev. And as often happens, the cause was somewhat anticlimactic.
“Ami got on the drum kit, climbed on the drummer’s back, and jumped,” Gat recounts. “And he landed perfectly. He’d done it plenty of times before. But I guess it set off some accumulated damage to his knee, just ripped it apart. We played one more song but Ami stopped and started asking if there was a paramedic in the audience.” The disturbing aftermath is captured on YouTube (natch), including multiple “Pussy!” taunts from the crowd. “The ambulance came but Ami refused to get in it – we just drove him. We only missed one show (in Athens), but did the next three in North Carolina with Ami on crutches standing on the bar – which was kind of fun, actually, a nice change of pace.” For his part Shalev harbors no grudge against the callous Floridians. “I wasn’t pissed off,” he shrugs. “It’s part of the business.”
Roughly six months of physical therapy spaced between more touring eventually whipped Shalev’s torn meniscus back into shape – he’s only now approaching 100% recovery. “The only options are surgery and extensive therapy,” says Shalev. “It was really cool because I’m a big sports fan and I rehabbed at a sports clinic, so I got to meet a lot of my idols.”
Despite that cancellation, Athens has witnessed its share of Monotonix mayhem. The trio is known for upending garbage receptacles, but Gat recalls a show where “some idiot in the audience started throwing a steel trashcan around. Most people can protect themselves with their hands, but me and the drummer are kind of susceptible to flying objects.” In this situation, however, it was Ami and Yonatan who took the brunt. “At some point the trashcan hit my face, busting my head open, then ricocheted to hit Ami’s head as well. So my face was covered with my blood, then Ami came over and smeared his blood on the rest of my face. We were at this crazy gay bar with mirrors everywhere, so I kept seeing myself during the show and I looked like Freddie Krueger. But we just kept going – we still played a late show at Secret Squirrel that night,” Gat proudly reports. Drummer Haggai Fershtman may have gotten off lightly that night but he usually gets the worst of it – “He took a disco ball in his face in Houston once.”
These stories risk conjuring an image of darker violence, but both Gat and Shalev insist their typical crowd exudes a friendly, party vibe. “I think people who went to hardcore shows in the ’80s are reminded a bit of that old scene, except that we have girls in the front dancing,” Gat conjectures. “It’s all done with humor and a smile.” Still, I wouldn’t wear any treasured articles of clothing to a Monotonix show – along with drink spraying, there’s also a penchant for pyromania that often enters the mix….
The next order of business for Monotonix is to make a record that captures their live fury. Enter the newly minted Not Yet, which is a surefooted step in that direction. “Every time we make a new record it’s a little more simple, stripped down, minimalistic,” Gat explains. “It’s not planned, that’s just what happens as we figure out what we want from playing live. These songs are faster and shorter, more like punk songs, which I really liked as a kid and still do.” The trio made three separate trips to Chicago to record with noted engineer Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studio. “It was a really spontaneous process – write a song, record it two or three weeks later in a great studio with a really good engineer. We had booked the studio time before had a single song written, but it turned out to be the easiest, smoothest thing we’ve done. And every time we started getting sick of the studio, we were outta there.”
Albini doesn’t generate the monolithic sound on Not Yet that marked his earthshaking work with the Pixies or Mclusky, but he does imbue Monotonix’ bass-free attack with a much-needed taut tension. I don’t usually cotton to a ginormous metal assault, but Gat’s driving riffage on “Everything That I See,” the garage stomp of “Before I Pass Away,” and Shalev’s Ozzy-meets-Biafra wail on “Never Died Before” are undeniably thrilling. “It came right after a very stressful year with the last record (2009’s Where Were You When It Happened?), which was really hard to make, and all sorts of personal things everyone in the band was going through, and this one was just easier,” Gat continues. “We feel like we’re making music for fun again – kind of stopped trying to prove things to anyone, but proving to ourselves that we still love doing this after five years and 1,000 shows.”
Monotonix’ relentless touring schedule is necessitated in part by the trio having written off (professionally speaking) its Tel Aviv hometown – or vice versa. Despite some hype of their having been banned from most venues, Gat paints a somewhat less rancorous picture. “People there don’t really appreciate our kind of music or performance. It took about six months of trying before we realized we had to go elsewhere.” He’s quick to profess his love of other cultural aspects of his country, however. “It’s kind of comparable to a small town in the US, except that in the US you can get in a car and drive somewhere cool. In Israel we have to fly because we’re surrounded by areas that don’t like us very much. I don’t even think the new record is coming out in Israel.”
Given their stage swagger, Monotonix’ personal lives may come as a bit of a surprise. “The rest of the band has managed to do something strange – combining having a normal family life with being in a band. The second the tour ends they get on the earliest plane and go home to become family men,” Gat explains, pointing to Shalev’s three-month-old son. Shalev professes to throw himself as fully into fatherhood when the time comes as he does into his stage persona. Gat claims the road warrior formula works unexpectedly well. “When they’re home, unless we’re making a record, they can give undivided attention to their wives and kids.” Still, these guys aren’t spring chickens (Shalev is over 40, and Fershtman isn’t far behind; only the restless Gat remains in his twenties) and sound ready to ease up on the mileage a bit. “It’s a strange life,” Gat admits, “I can tell you exactly where I’m going to be six months from now.”
Would any changes extend to adding a bass player? “Nah – those guys take up too much room in the van,” Gat deadpans.